Archive for John Coltrane

Now This is What You Call a Gig!

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on March 5, 2014 by telescoper


No time for a proper post today, but I couldn’t resist reblogging this advertisement for what must have been an amazing concert with an amazing lineup; so amazing that Pharaoh Sanders and Albert Ayler, who were also there, didn’t even make it onto the poster!

Originally posted on thejazzword:

Now This is What You Call a Gig!

It was 1966…Pharaoh Sanders and Albert Ayler were also there playing with Coltrane’s group

View original

My Favo(u)rite Things

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on January 7, 2014 by telescoper

I’ve got a short gap in between meetings which I thought I’d fill by posting a classic piece by John Coltrane. This is the title track from the 1961 album My Favorite Things which, as it happens, is one of my favourite things. Coltrane plays soprano sax on this track; apparently he hadn’t played a soprano sax until 1960, when Miles Davis bought him one. I like its use on this particularly recording as it gives the performance a very “Eastern” sound.

You might think that a song from The Sound of Music would be unlikely material for John Coltrane to tackle, but in fact he does something extremely interesting with it: the melody is heard numerous times throughout the track, but instead of playing solos over the written chord changes, the soloists improvise over just two chords, E minor and E major, in a manner that seems influenced by Indian music. The whole thing is played in waltz time. In fact, although John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner are great on this track I can never quite manage to tear my ears away from the drummer, the late and very great Elvin Jones, who keeps an intense but fluidly swinging pulse going in 3/4 but also does so much around and across that central beat that it seems he must have more than one pair of hands…


Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on January 1, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday I happened to be listening to the classic album A Love Supreme made by the John Coltrane quartet in 1964. Since the second of the four “movements” (for what of a better word) of this work is called Resolution, I thought it would be a good thing to post on New Year’s Day to welcome everyone to 2013!

A Love Supreme is one of my favourite jazz albums, not only because it’s glorious music to listen to but also for its historical importance. Shortly after making this record Coltrane comprehensively changed his musical direction, abandoning many of the structures that underpinned his earlier work and adopting an approach heavily influenced by the free jazz of the likes of Ornette Coleman and, especially, Albert Ayler. Not everyone likes the music Coltrane made after he made that transition (in 1965) but having taken his earlier style to such a high peak as A Love Supreme he and the rest of the band no doubt felt they couldn’t go any further in that direction.

There are glimpses of the later freer approach in the third track, Pursuance, when the drum and saxophone interchanges between Elvin Jones and Coltrane threaten to break the regular tempo apart, and on this (the second) track Resolution, when McCoy Tyner abandons his usual single-note lines in favour of much more complex chordal improvisations. I think Coltrane’s solo on the last track, Psalm, is entirely improvised and , accompanied by Jones’ rising and falling drum rolls, it acquires a hauntingly solemn atmosphere which makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time I hear it. What a fantastic drummer Elvin Jones was.

But I haven’t got time to analyse the whole album – another’s words are in any case no substitute for listening to this masterpiece yourself – so I’ll just mention that Resolution is based on an 8-bar theme that’s very reminiscent of the theme Africa featured on Africa/Brass made a couple of years earlier. To me it sounds like Coltrane is just itching to cut loose on this track. His saxophone tone has a harder edge than usual for that period, giving the piece an anguished, pleading feel. Elvin Jones is also magnificent, his polyrhythmic accents spurring Coltrane to a climactic solo.

The intensity of Resolution ignites an even more dramatic onslaught on the next track, Pursuance, basically a blues taken at a very fast tempo, before the mood changes completely for the final part, Psalm. And all this builds from the opening track, Acknowledgement, which closes with the whole group chanting the words A Love Supreme in unison to a simple four-note figure stated at the opening of the piece.

Four tracks amounting to just over 30 minutes of music, but a masterpiece by any standards.

Happy New Year!

Physics and other things that make life worth living…

Posted in Biographical, Education, Jazz, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 24, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday we hosted a seminar by João Magueijo from Imperial College. It was a really interesting talk but the visit also a number of staff and students, including myself, the chance to chat to João about various things. In my case that primarily meant catching up on one another’s news, since we haven’t talked since early summer and a lot has happened since then. Then we had drinks, more drinks, dinner, drinks and then cocktails, finishing about 2am. A fairly standard night out with João, actually.

Among the topics discussed in the course of an increasingly drunken conversation was the fact that physicist Stephon Alexander had recently moved to Dartmouth College, a prestigious Ivy League institution in New Hampshire. I don’t know Stephon very well at all as I don’t really work in the same area as him. In fact, we’ve only ever met once – at a Cosmology School in Morocco (in 1996 or thereabouts); he was a graduate student and I was giving some lectures. On the left you can see a snap of him I took at that time. Can that really have been so long ago?

Anyway, I’ll resist the temptation to bemoan the passage of time and all that and get back to the point which is the connection that formed in my head between Stephon, yesterday’s post about the trials and tribulations facing prospective PhD students, and an older post of mine about  the importance of not forgetting to live a life while you do a PhD.

The point is that although there are many things that may deter or prevent an undergraduate from taking the plunge into graduate studies, one thing shouldn’t put you off and that is the belief that doing a PhD is like joining a monastery in that it requires you to give up a lot of other things and retreat from the outside world. Frankly, that’s bollocks. If I’m permitted to quote myself:

I had plenty of outside interests (including music, sport and nightlife)  and took time out regularly to indulge them. I didn’t – and still don’t – feel any guilt about doing that. I’m not a robot. And neither are you.

In other words, doing a PhD does not require you to give up the things that make life worth living. Actually, if you’re doing a physics PhD then physics itself should be one of the things that make life worth living for you, so I should rephrase that as “giving up any of the other things that make life worth living”.

Having a wide range of experiences and interests to draw on can even help with your research:

In fact, I can think of many times during my graduate studies when I was completely stuck on a problem – to the extent that it was seriously bothering me. On such occasions I learned to take a break. I often found that going for a walk, doing a crossword, or just trying to think about something else for a while, allowed me to return to the problem fresher and with new ideas. I think the brain gets into a rut if you try to make it work in one mode all the time.

I’d say that to be a good research student by no means requires you to be a monomaniac. And this is where Stephon comes in. As well as being a Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stephon is an extremely talented Jazz musician. He’s even had saxophone lessons from the great Ornette Coleman. I have to admit he has a few technical problems with his instrument in this clip, but I’m using him as an example here because I also love Jazz and, although I have a negligible amount of talent as a musician, have rudimentary knowledge of how to play the saxophone. In fact, I remember chatting to him in a bar in Casablanca way back in ’96 and music was the sole topic of conversation.

Anyway, in the following clip Stephon talks about how music actually helped him solve a research problem. It’s basically an extended riff on the opening notes of the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps which, incidentally, I posted about here.

In a Sentimental Mood

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on October 24, 2012 by telescoper

A late post this evening, as I’m just back from a short visit to Brighton. I travelled down there yesterday evening and stayed with an old friend in a house I lived in for a time about 25 years ago. I spent most of today meeting some of my future colleagues at the University of Sussex, who made me feel very welcome, and also catching up on some important things to be dealt with when I take over there in the new year. It’s all part of a gradual process of acclimatisation which I’ll need to do so I don’t take ages getting up to speed when I officially start. I didn’t get much time to wander about the town, but many Brighton memories have flooded back over the last couple of days. Cue an old favourite track that I listened to this evening on the train on the way home. It’s from a lovely album recorded by the unlikely combination of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. They were men of different musical generations, but they admired each other enormously. It’s clear from the relaxed nature of this collaboration that neither felt he had any points to prove; each adapts his style to suit the other, with gorgeous results.


Posted in Jazz with tags , , on October 27, 2010 by telescoper

Contrary to popular myth, Greensleeves was not written by Henry VIII. It was actually composed by the person who seems to have written all the best tunes, Trad. Here’s my favourite version, in a jazz style that’s very far from “Trad”, by a superb band led by John Coltrane, as found on the brilliant album Africa/Brass recorded in 1961.

ps. I think it was the pianist McCoy Tyner who wrote the arrangement for this piece, but I’m not 100% certain of that.

Giant Steps

Posted in Jazz with tags , on August 21, 2009 by telescoper

After all the griping about musical taste  in two of my earlier posts this week (here and here), it’s probably good to put something up which I think is a masterpiece. You may, of course, disagree….

I came across this on Youtube a while ago. It made me think of the hours I spent trying to transcribe a Johnny Dodds clarinet solo from an old record, and that came out as a single page of music!

Here’s what the incredible virtuosity of John Coltrane‘s tenor sax playing looks like when written down. Or not quite. For some reason, the transcription is done as if the instrument is in Concert Pitch (C) whereas the tenor saxophone is a transposing instrument (B-flat). This means when you play what is written as C on the stave what actually comes out as B-flat, etc. Music for such instruments has to be written taking this into account, but this transcription doesn’t do so. There used to be (and probably still are, here and there) C-melody saxophones but they’re not very popular, and John Coltrane certainly wasn’t playing one on this track!

Neverthless, the speed and inventiveness of his playing is just amazing to behold. The tune is a Coltrane original which involves an unusual (and difficult to play) chord progression based on three keys shifted by major thirds.

It’s  called Giant Steps

On Green Dolphin Street

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , , on May 31, 2009 by telescoper

Years ago in 1980, when the great pianist Bill Evans passed away suddenly, Humphrey Lyttelton paid tribute to him on his radio programme “The Best of Jazz” by playing a number of tracks featuring him. I didn’t really know much about Bill Evans at the time – I was only 17 then – but one track that Humph chose has been imprinted on my mind ever since, and it’s one of those pieces of music that I listen to over and over again.

The track is On Green Dolphin Street, as recorded in 1958 by the great Miles Davis sextet of the time that featured himself on trumpet, John Coltrane on tennor sax, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass and Bill Evans on piano. This is the same band that played on the classic album Kind of Blue, one of the most popular and also most innovative jazz records of all time, which was recorded a bit after the recording of On Green Dolphin Street.  I love Kind of Blue, of course, but I think this track is even better than the many great tracks on that album (All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, Blue in Green, etc). In fact, I’d venture the opinion – despite certainty of contradiction – that this is the greatest Jazz recording ever made.

On Green Dolphin Street was suggested to Miles Davis the band’s leader by the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. It was the theme tune from a film from the late 1940s. It’s also the title of a more recent very fine novel by Sebastian Faulks.

I think the Miles Davis version demonstrates his genius not only as a musician himself but also as a bandleader. On Green Dolphin Street definitely bears the Miles Davis hallmark, but it also manages to accommodate the very different styles of the other musicians and allows them also to impose their personality on it. This is done by having each solo introduced with a passage with the rhythm section playing a different, less propulsive, 3/4 time behind it. This allows each musician to set out their stall before the superb rhythm section kicks into a more swinging straight-ahead beat  (although it still keeps the 3/4 feel alongside the 4-4, courtesy of brilliant drumming by Jimmy Cobb) and they head off into their own territory. As the soloists hand over from one to the other there are moments of beautiful contrast and dramatic tension, especially – and this is the reason why Humph picked this one in 1980 – when Bill Evans takes over for his solo from Cannonball Adderley. He starts with hesitant single-note phrases before moving into a richly voiced two handed solo fully of lush harmonies. It’s amazing to me to hear how the mood changes completely and immediately when he starts playing.

Not that the other soloists play badly either. After Bill Evans short but exquisite prelude, Miles Davis takes over on muted trumpet, more lyrical and less introspective than in Kind of Blue but still with a moody,  melancholic edge. He’s followed by John Coltrane’s passionately virtuosic solo which floods out of him in an agonized stream which contrasts with Miles’ poised simplicity. By contrast, Cannonball Adderley is jaunty and upbeat, sauntering through his solo up to that wonderful moment where he hands over to the piano. Then Miles Davis takes over again to take them to the conclusion of the piece.

I’m not into League tables for music, but this is definitely fit to put up alongside the greatest of them all…


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